Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Convenient Dog






To convey the sense of a character's inner self at work, dramatists have given us the soliloquy. Many novelists and short story writers have modified this means of conveying inner feelings into the device of interior monologue.

With two or more characters on stage or page, the author has recourse to a wide, creative spectrum of action-related options. With one character on stage or page alone, the options narrow. The author is forced into the head of the character, where the verbs turn from action based into those driven by thought.

Writers, forced by contractual observations to be more observant of deadlines than technique, or seduced by their own sense of cleverness, will on occasion resort to giving a solitary character some pet with whom to have the sort of conversation that does not strike the reader as entirely gratuitous.

You can--and do--say with the authority of emphasis that story is action. It often contains thought, but the story more often than not begins with some action to demonstrate plans to cope with disaster, ambition, and loyalty to a cause.

Characters who discuss their stake in the parameters of the story or, indeed, in comparisons of the animal and human conditions run the risk of being seen as cute.

Dogs and cats appear most often as convenience buddies, beings whose presence in the story has no other purpose than providing a lazy writer with a way out of a dilemma.



Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Stranger in Town

All stories begin with an incident to shatter the calm of routine. For some time to come, perhaps forever, adios to the ordinary. Bienvenidos to the downward spiral of dramatic events to come. If we have any history of reading fiction, we know some form of disaster and some need for evasive action beckon. Our curiosity and anticipation draw us in.

Many stories begin with an individual--often the protagonist--sent or assigned to an unfamiliar locale, with a stated goal or assignment. Welcome to the stranger in town, one of the two or three basic designs of story.

The stranger in town represents the alien or outsider to the locals, who are wary if not outright suspicious and resentful. To see this dynamic in action, start with the opening paragraphs of Gustave Flaubert's Madam Bovary, where the character of Charles Bovary is first introduced to a classroom of schoolmates. Although not the protagonist, Charles Bovary comes to us as an outsider. In one way or another, he remains marginal and influential to his eventual wife, Emma.

Camille Preaker, protagonist of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects, gives yet another version of stranger in town. A regular from a place has left, often for life in another city. Circumstances call her back home, where she's regarded as changed, no longer one of us, her trustworthiness and motives cause for increased suspicion.

The greater a character's deviation from ordinary, the better the character's potential for dramatic immortality. Captain Ahab, far from the protagonist of Moby Dick, nevertheless steals scenes from The Whale and from the intended protagonist, Ishmael. Readers who have yet to experience the pleasures of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, have absorbed through literary osmosis the picture of Becky Sharp as an opportunist. Those yet to read Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, still know Scarlett O'Hara's mantra about tomorrow. Shakespeare's Iago resides in infamy as an advocate of treachery, and who among us believes his Sir John Falstaff was ever knighted in actuality.

The Stranger in Town represents the spectrum of marginality or alienness readers understand, often on the level of personal experience. Difficult to concieve of any serious writer who has not felt the separation of being from alien country. The Stranger is the one white in an all-black group, the one black in an all-white, the one white in an otherwise Asian group. To add double jeopardy, imagine a WASP baseball player, fresh off an athletic scholarship to Princeton, one of the most reputed WASP universities, being drafted by a major league baseball team in which most of the starting lineup is from Cuba and Central America.

SIT embodies race, gender, sexual orientation, political, and economic stratification. SIT can be a young girl asking her prehistoric father if she can have a boyfriend over to dinner, and the father hoping the boyfriend is not "on of then Neanderthal sorts." 

What are her true origins? What does she want? Why is she really  here? Nevermind what she tells us, what agenda does she hide?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Authorial Flagging

After a sufficient introduction to the joys of reading, most readers will dabble outside the range of contemporary authors, sampling works from past centuries. In the process, they become aware of writers who produce a steady ensemble of eccentric characters, whose foibles span the spectrum of outrageous behavior.

Authors from the past,such as Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Marianne Evans (writing as George Eliot) and Charlotte Bronte have been particularly adept at providing us with memorable characters. More contemporary authors, say Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, Elmore Leonard,and Nadine Gordimer, win our hearts and minds because of the way they've participated in the evolution of character from mere description into evocations of behavior through the filter of their individual actions.

Even so, these authors project a sense of personality and style that filters through the open spaces within their narratives. But when an author oversteps the boundaries of twenty-first century storytelling conventions, we become aware of their desperate need to burst upon a particular scene, arms waving, to flag down out attention, whereupon they undertake to explain to us the things we readers should be working out for ourselves.

Hence authorial flagging, the attempt of a writer to explain the story to us rather than being content to let the story tell itself.

Don't tell the reader what the reader may already know.

Don't do the reader's work for him or her, which will only cause you in the long run to complain that readers are too lazy to get your intentions and implications.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Arrive At

Someone or something appears, right now, in a story. The principals don't have time, ability, nor inclination to cope. 

The electricity for the Winfield's home in The Glass Menagerie is turned off. Tom was supposed to pay the bill. He didn't, which builds toward a suggestion he was using the money for a get-away-from-home fund.

Huck Finn's drink-prone and abusive father returns to town, thinking to supervise Huck's dollar-a-day stipend from the treasure he and his friend, Tom Sawyer, liberated in a previous adventure. Pap Finn's arrival triggers the subsequent novel, which is an account of Huck's attempt to escape and his accidental paring with the runaway slave, Jim.

For the story, already underway, this arrival presents the complexity of an intrusion, a rock thrown, if you will, by Fate,a clamor for attention in the life of the characters and the minds of the reader. (See Stranger in Town).

This new arrival signals the presence of a distant or unknown relative, an old friend from a different lifestyle, a romantic ex, an individual your character's parent did not approve of, at the character's doorstep, bearing a cheap gift and an agenda.

The arrival may also be an object, a letter, say, or a legal summons, or a bunch of flowers.

Never mind that the arrival may be at the wrong door, the letter or summons or bunch of flowers delivered by mistake. The effects add momentum to the destabilization inflicted upon the cast of characters when the story begins.

Anton Chekhov's illustrative short story, "The Death of a Civil Servant," begins with the eponymous protagonist, a lowly civil servant,seated at an opera, caught up in his profound enjoyment of the performance. What could possibly arrive in such a place and at such a time to destabilize? 

Funny you should ask. If you know Chekhov--and you should--the answer sidesteps its way in, skirting plausibility. A sneeze. The protagonist sneezes. No biggie, right? People are known to sneeze in any number of circumstances.

The problem comes home to roost when the protagonist realizes some minute traces of his sneeze have traveled to the back of the head of the person sitting directly in front of him. He can see the traces, right there--gulp--on a general who works for the same bureaucracy, although not the same department. 

Our hero tries, for the rest of the story, to apologize. The general keeps interrupting him, telling him the incident does not matter. But the Civil Servant can't let the matter go.

The story ends with the Civil Servant so hopelessly caught up in the downward spiral of his own, imagined consequences, that he goes home, puts on his dress uniform, goes to bed, whereupon he dies.

This one story helps illustrate the influence of Chekhov on modern writers, the added effects of the Arrival, and some of the many ways the growl and gnaw of the inner voice can remind us of how vulnerable a character can become.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Accelerant

There is a point you reach before sending a work off to its life in print where you're not quite satisfied with the result nor are you confident one more close read through will offer a clue to the missing element. At such times, you reach for the device most favored by the arsonist.

What you're looking for isn't mentioned by name in any book about composing fiction, least of all in any of your writings on the subject. If you know anything at all about the process of storytelling, you know how open the medium is to the migration of useful concepts from other disciplines. 

You like to tell yourself you were on that very track when you noted the common bond shared by the writer, the dancer, the musician, and the photographer. All of these worthies manipulate time to their advantage, whether it is the length of a note in a musical piece, the shutter speed in a photograph, the pose held by a dancer, the life event extended or compressed by the storyteller.

Your common ground with the arsonist is the accelerant, the medium the arsonist uses to speed up the intensity and range of the fire. Your narrative may lack some degree of inevitability crashing to the ground as though a juggler had dropped his display items. It may progress at a jog when it should be more of a gallop. The culprit in your narrative maybe something as innocent as a sense of awareness being regarded as an insight rather than a life-changing revelation.

Your favorite arrival point in your reading of the work of sister and brother writers, long dead or less than half your present day age, is the moment when you understand you are not where you wish to be, within a narrative you cannot possibly abandon. Such narratives hold you in their power of accelerated involvement and inevitability.

The accelerant in your own work may turn out to be as simple as the lead character wanting the outcome even sooner than you'd thought. Perhaps the character's wish is for a larger portion of whatever the goal, or the settling of a score so hopelessly unsettled as to cause the other characters in the narrative to think of it as quixotic.

Although you do not strive for the kinds of humor associated with the more physical, slip-on-a-banana-peel aspects of comedy, rather instead with the overall notion of the universe itself being a part of a large, anomalous joke, you tend to gravitate toward characters like Wile E. coyote, who appear fortunate if they can manage to avoid for a few moments the latest in a series of humiliations.

You look for an accelerant, some kerosene or petrol to throw on the fire that has just come to life through some miscalculation or some more spontaneous combustion. You want the fire to speed up. From this comes the voice and the humor you seek.

Humor is tragedy, speeded up.

The Fates have tossed a match into the wastebasket.

The Muses have caused a fire in the kitchen.

The sorcerer's apprentice has underestimated his ability.

There is the chaos about you of your own characters, running from the cover you thought to provide them.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Arrival

For the thirty-four years you taught courses there, you expected to arrive at the University of Southern California when you set forth from your point of departure somewhere to the north, in Santa Barbara.

You expected--and were overwhelming in your success--to arrive at five other destinations where you taught, as well as the various writers conferences in which you participated as a workshop leader or speaker.

Since all these destinations are associated in some way with writing, they seem for your purpose here a splendid and emphatic example of destination as an anticipated point of arrival. In turn, these examples also set in motion the concepts of departure and anticipation as necessary conditions to arrival.

A process begins when an individual such as yourself departs from a particular location. The individual is purposefully leaving Point A. Thus you at ages nine, ten, eleven, increasingly leaving Point A, which can also be seen as either home, a classroom, or some public park, with the specific destination of a library in mind.

The motivations for your departure with that destination in mind were cocktails of curiosity and boredom. The destination much more often than not provided ample remedy for the boredom, sated the curiosity to some degree, or quite possibly triggered it to even greater intensity.

A significant side effect of your earlier departures and arrivals is the person you became and now are, by profession a writer, editor, and teacher. To this day, in service of boredom and curiosity, you continue to arrive at libraries; you also arrive at bookstores and send forth electronic departures to other bookstores, newspapers, and journals. 

Often when you sit in your present dwelling, you are literally and figuratively up to your ass in books, magazines, and journals. Were you to sit on the floor, as you on occasion do, you'd as well be in over your head with books.

In your capacities as writer, editor, and teacher, your activities often involve a departure from a known or measured condition, thus a start of a journey toward an outcome or arrival. Either you, yourself, a client, or a number of students board a particular conveyance. All aboard.

The destination is the tricky part. You came upon this discovery some years back when you began to notice how, in relative terms, it is easier [for you] to begin a story than it is to end or resolve it. Somewhere along the way, you began to equate endings with punchlines of jokes. No laughter, ineffective story or punchline. But then you began to see. You didn't want that kind of a punchline. And. You were not at all adverse to laughter, but such as there was should come within. You don't want punchlines for endings; you want a sense of arrival at a destination.

All along, the reader is on track to reach a destination, but not the most anticipated one. Were you to drive to Los Angeles these days, you'd be horrified to discover force of habit had taken you to the University of Southern California.  Were you to drive to Los Angeles these days, you'd be happier to discover you'd arrived at 12224 Ventura Boulevard, Studio City, which happens to be Art's Delicatessen and Restaurant.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Word with You

"The right word," your literary ideal was wont to say, "not its second cousin." He also spoke of the vast difference between the lightning bug and lightning. It was also he who said he wished to be in Kentucky when the end of the world came about because Kentucky was always twenty years behind the times.

You admire Mark Twain for his specificity in word choice, but even more admiration comes forth from his way of squeezing humor from the precise, most effective order of placement of those specific words. His goal of specificity led you to collecting and browsing dictionaries as though they were novels and short stories.

In later years, you took up with a writer of your generation, pleased with yourself and simultaneously envious of this slightly younger than you Philip Roth. You became fascinated with his character Lonoff, the writer, who spoke to another character, arguably Roth's alter ego, Zuckerman. Lonoff, likely modeled after Bernard Malamud, spoke of pushing words around, perhaps gaining an acceptable sentence for a day's work.

You had (and still have) little patience for John Updike (a year and a day older than Roth); who was indeed able to bleed on the page as indeed Twain's and Roth's characters did, but there was a difference. When Twain's and Roth's (and certainly Malamud's ) characters bled, the blood had the qualities of the pre-Cambrian Sea, as does the blood of most of us. When Updike's characters bleed, there is no pre-Cambrian Sea, rather a Coca-Cola.

For the longest time, you sought to drive your stories through the force of the words themselves, seeking moral, philosophical, and even intellectual depths. But, alas, these depths, even if achieved, are the depths of description. They lack the inclusion of evocation or, as some would call it, subtext.

Close, but no cigar, as they say.

You believe this: The right word does not call attention to itself. The right word has no ambition of becoming a lightning bug or in any sense a peer of the realm of literary royalty. The right word is more like Shakespeare's observation of the poor player who struts and frets his moment on the stage, then is heard no more.

The right word reminds you of many of the English actors you so admire, persons of differing ages and origins, products of rigorous acting discipline, whose names you have to look up even while admiring their superb skills (Nicola Walker comes to mind).

You're chagrined to recall how, well over ten years ago, you devoted significant class time to demonstrate how one wrong word can produce the distraction that throws the reader out of the story. This brings to you the metaphor of boarding the southbound train here in Santa Barbara, your destination that enormous urban sprawl of your origins, Los Angeles.

Indeed, some one is waiting for you in Los Angeles for a specific purpose.

Whether you recognize it or not, each time you commit to reading a story or novel, watching a play or film, you are boarding a vehicle with an embedded destination.

The effect you're talking about in relation to right and wrong words in story is of a piece with you boarding a train in Santa Barbara with a Los Angeles destination. But suppose a group of conductors approach you directly after the train has stopped at the Burbank Airport, then forcibly escorted you from the train.

You are inordinately fond of the reviews and novels of the Irish writer, John Banville, even though your interests in him are more for his judgment and vocabulary than his storytelling. You frequently find words in his novels that cause you to consult your American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language. You even feel the envy that Banville is able to use such words in his texts while you are not.

The point of these paragraphs: We don't read for words, we read for story. We don't read for the stops made by the local train, we read for the express.